Doing it for ourselves
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has a proud history of representing women in our Tasting Panels, but does the absence of any men affect proceedings? We asked one of the contributors to a recent all-woman Panel to reflect on the experience
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
THE PANELLISTS ASSEMBLE
ABOVE: The all-women SMWS Tasting Panel at work
In contrast to the chilly, dreich January morning outside, the SMWS panellists offered nothing but bright smiles and warm enthusiasm as they met at The Vaults for the task ahead: to assess a selection of cask samples and contribute their tasting notes.
Having been recommended by an existing member and having passed the necessary sensory evaluation test, each of the five judges (hailing from five different countries) is a qualified and experienced SMWS panellist.
Now, much has been written about how women’s sense of smell and taste differs to that of men. Some have even suggested that they may well be superior (the senses, that is; not the females!)
But within the context of an SMWS Tasting Panel, my mission (which I chose to accept) was to determine whether there would be any noticeable differences, given the absence of any male panellists.
Perhaps the dynamic would be different? Or panellists would change their flavour references? Perhaps they’d be more willing to suggest more elaborate and flamboyant descriptors?
GENDER VS CULTURE
As each panellist poured the first sample, quiet ensued while the nosing and tasting took place. This is normal practice for each assessment, with discussion occurring afterwards, so that panellists aren’t initially influenced by each other. The subsequent tasting notes for this sample were more or less in the same vein, although there were some slight differences. However, moving on to the second sample, panellists’ tasting notes differed to a much greater extent.
“Was this diversity of tasting notes the result of panellists feeling able to be more vocal within an all-women Tasting Panel?”, I asked. The answer was a resounding ‘no’. As one panellist mentioned, “this greater variety of tasting notes is most likely due to cultural differences rather than anything relating to gender.”
Which brings up an interesting point. Indeed, it goes without saying that a person’s gender affords them different experiences; both within and outwith the world of whisky. However, the Tasting Panel agreed that other factors, such as age, cultural background and an individual’s upbringing, also contribute to the experiences that each person brings to the Tasting Panel table – experiences which are consequently conveyed via their noses and palates.
As is the case with most tasting experiences, by the third sample, even though we were all using the spittoon, the panellists had really started to warm up.
Perhaps we just needed a short time to become comfortable with one another and get into the swing of things (it was a Monday morning, after all).
The discussions for this sample became more frank and there was a distinct willingness on the part of the panellists to contribute more opinions and give more in-depth tasting notes. Once again, I suggested that this might be due to the Panel being all-women. And on this occasion, the response wasn’t so much a resounding ‘no’ but more of a ‘not necessarily’.
“It all depends on how supportive the other panellists are,” suggested one SMWS Panel member. Another added that “more experience of being on a Tasting Panel lends itself to panellists being more vocal, regardless of the gender ratio.”
ABOVE: Assessing a Panel sample
So, perhaps this is one of the factors underpinning the SMWS Tasting Panel’s success? With the more experienced panellists welcoming and mentoring new panellists, they ensure not only that those opportunities exist but that they are open to all, regardless of gender.
As we continued to assess the final samples, we concluded with a peated whisky from Islay. Now, whether at a whisky tasting, a whisky festival or simply ordering a dram in a bar, most women at some point in their whisky journey have been warned of the ‘force’ and ‘intensity’ of peated whisky. In times past, somebody, somewhere must have decided that the female palate wasn’t designed for such potency. So what was the verdict from this all-women Panel? Unanimously, it was the favourite sample of the day!
As panellists started to share their own experiences of how they had developed, and continue to develop, their nosing and tasting abilities.
It became clear that each one is committed to bringing their A-game to every single Tasting Panel.
While we all agreed that there are most definitely situations where one’s gender makes a difference to how you interact with others, we concluded that the SMWS Tasting Panel, as a rule, wasn’t one of them.
According to this all-women group of panellists, although their gender may have afforded them different experiences in life which, in turn, may have indirectly influenced their tasting notes, it is by no means the only variable; factors such as age, nationality and upbringing also play vital roles.
And with such a diverse range of noses and palates, perhaps the key to the Tasting Panel’s success lies in its equality of opportunity.